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Don’t Be Gormless! Gen Up on British Slang

British slang means this woman could be said to "snog a frog." (Photo by Eric Nathan / Visit Britain)

(Knowing British slang means understanding that finding your prince could involve snogging a few frogs. Photo by Eric Nathan / Visit Britain)

Communicating when you travel to Britain should be easy. After all, it's an English-speaking country. But you will quickly discover nuances of the language that could catch you off guard (and make it all too obvious that you're not familiar with British culture). Not only can the accent be difficult to decipher for an unaccustomed ear, slang terms and phrases sometimes make you feel as if you need an English-English Dictionary.

For example, if you need a washroom in Great Britain, you might be better off asking for the loo. To report a stolen wallet, you're going to want to talk to a bobby. If you're sweet on someone and looking for a kiss or a bit more, across the pond you're looking for a snog, and if you're engaged, you're busy. Chuffed means pleased, while cheesed off means peeved.

A lorry is a truck, and if one cuts you off in traffic, you may hear more colourful swear words than the four-letter invectives we use. A welly is a rubber boot, but "give it more welly" means putting in more effort or going faster in your car.

Most of us know "cheerio!" as a cheerful greeting or parting word (like the Hawaiian "aloha," it can work in both directions).

But how many of us understand that when looking for a tailor-made suit, you should ask for bespoke, and a bird isn't just a flying animal, it's also a slang term for a woman? Knowing a few simple phrases and words may not seem like much, but when you're out on the town and chatting with local blokes (guys), it can keep things from going pear-shaped (that is, very wrong) because of how gormless (clueless) you're being.

Some British terms mean the exact opposite of what they mean here. According to Mike Etherington, author of "The Very Best of British: An American's Guide to Speaking Brit," if an event "went down like a bomb, then it would mean that the people really enjoyed it."

Of course, slang terms in any language are constantly evolving and changing, so learning just a few things will only take you so far. In the UK, this is even more true given how quickly slang terms emerge.

The structure of Cockney rhyme slang, which originated in the east end of London, relies on taking a word, finding a few rhyming words (usually no more than two or three) to go with it and then abbreviating that phrasing down and dropping not only the original word but also the word that rhymed, leaving the original meaning clouded in mystery for the uninitiated.

For example, "stairs" becomes "apples" in cockney rhyme slang from the rhyming phrase "apples and pears." Though that particular example is rarely used in common speech today, it is often cited to help explain how cockney rhyme slang works.

Things can get further complicated when the original word is a British slang word. Working backwards to find a rhyme that makes sense is tough if you've never heard the original term in the first place!

If all this seems like too much to gen up on (learn about), don't get shirty. Half of the fun of traveling is meeting new people and learning about differences. As long as you've got an open mind and a smile, you're unlikely to encounter any serious difficulties in communication.

But just so everyone is clear: Not every Briton has an Auntie Beeb. That's just the affectionate nickname they've given to their national broadcaster, the BBC.

By Leigh Bryant

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